Review: A Just Passion

A Just Passion: A Six Week Lenten Journey, Ruth Haley Barton, Sheila Wise Rowe, Tish Harrison Warren, Terry M. Wildman, and others. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: A six week Lenten devotional consisting of brief excerpts from works by InterVarsity Press authors, scripture readings, and breath prayers, considering how, in the passion of Christ, we lament the injustices of the world, find healing in the redemptive work of Christ, and enter into Christ’s heart for justice for the oppressed.

Lent is a season of fasting (except on Sundays), where we begin by remembering that we will die, we lament our sins and those of the world and the impact of these on others. It is a time of repentance and drawing close again to Christ, walking in the way of his passion and anticipating the hope of Easter Sunday. For many, some form of Lenten devotional reading is a part of their practices from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, the forty days of Lent.

A Just Passion follows in that tradition, offering readings for the forty days of Lent (Sundays excepted because Sunday is a feast and not fast day). The readings are drawn from the writings of InterVarsity Press authors, each reading of two short pages of reading. Among those included are Ruth Haley Barton, Tish Harrison, Warren, Eugene Peterson, Esau McCaulley, Sheila Wise Rowe, Dominique DuBois Gilliard, John Perkins, Tara Beth Leach, and Soong-Chan Rah, just to give you a sense of the stellar lineup represented here.

Also included in each week’s readings are a lectionary reading drawn from the First Nations Version of the New Testament, an English translation for indigenous peoples of North America, whose lead translator is Terry M. Wildman. One day each week includes a “breath prayer” in which we breathe in a short invitation or supplication to God and breathe out a line of response or release. For example, the breath prayer of week one is (breathe in)”Blessed are those who hunger” and (breathe out) “They will be filled.”

The readings focus on the inextricable link between the passion of Jesus and the pursuit of justice. They begin with Tish Harrison Warren reminding us that on Ash Wednesday, the ashes are to remind us that we are dust, that we die, and to hold on to what is real. John Perkins reminds us that Jesus was love incarnate, a mission of reconciliation his son Spencer died pursuing, and that he continues in West Jackson. Mark E. Strong tells the story of a young boy who has nothing for the offering and climbs into the basket, offering himself, which is truly the living worship of every Christ follower. Bethany H. Hoang, director of International Justice Mission, speaks of the exhausting work of fighting injustice, work that only can be sustained if begun in prayer. Christ outpoured in our lives is the beginning of our pursuit of justice.

Each reading gives the author and book from which it is sourced and an index by days gives more complete publication information. Not only is this a wonderful “sampler” of the authors who write for InterVarsity Press, this is a well-conceived and substantive collection that helps us enter into Christ’s passion while calling us into the pursuit of justice. Vice President of InterVarsity Press Cindy Bunch introduces the collection, offering specific practices we might consider in the pursuit of justice. If you are still looking for a Lenten devotional, this one is well worth your consideration.

____________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Why I Don’t Write About Organized Crime

Youngstown Mob Talk Podcast episode produced by Johnny Chechitelli

A friend of ours asked me if I had heard of The Crooked City: Youngstown, Ohio podcast. A friend of his from Youngstown was talking about it. In short order, I noticed several articles about it and realized, “this is a big deal.” In a Business Journal article this past Thursday, I learned that it was one of the top ten podcasts nationally for a number of weeks last year. Turns out I’m not much of a podcast guy, although I’ve been listening to episodes of Crooked City as I write. It’s pretty good stuff. National crime podcaster Mark Smerling puts these podcasts together, but local WKBN producer Johnny Chechitelli, who also produces a local podcast, “Youngstown Mob Talk,” contributed from his archives of research to the project. I also learned that there is a “Youngstown Mob” Facebook group with 28,000 members. On February 9, Johnny Chechitelli and Joseph Naples III are doing a live “Youngstown Mob Talk” at the Robins Theatre in Warren.

I’ve never focused on writing on organized crime in Youngstown, other than passing references. Hearing about all the interest in the mob, it occurs to me that if I wrote on it, there might be a lot of interest. But as interesting as it is, I’m not going to go there.

This is not to say that the history of organized crime in Youngstown is not a significant part of Youngstown history. Part of its history I grew up with. I saw the headlines of the latest mob hit or car-bombing or fire-bombed business. I knew that our politicians were enmeshed in mob influence. The Jim Traficant years, the focus of The Crooked City, which focuses on first person narratives, came after I moved away, though I heard him give one of his drug talks during college. He was riveting. I understood his appeal.

I’m impressed with the work Smerling and Chechitelli have done, and so many others have done and are doing to tell this story. Hopefully, it will inspire everyone in the Valley to say “never again.”

Here’s why I’m not joining them.

  • Whenever I tell someone I grew up in Youngstown, the first thing they bring up is “Crimetown” or “Bombtown” or “Youngstown tuneup.” Seems like everyone, whether from Youngstown or not, know about this history. And I did as well. I’m not always that keen to re-live it.
  • There are already a number of good people who are in this lane, many who have spent years researching this stuff from Johnny Chechitelli, or James Naples III, a local mob historian and nephew of Joey Naples, or long-time Vindy reporter Bertram D’Souza. I want to drive in another lane. In their lane, I’d just be a wannabe.
  • I tell those who ask me about the mob scene in Youngstown that despite all this, Youngstown was a great, good place to grow up in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. My articles, in part are an explanation of why Youngstown was a great, good place. So many of us who came of age in those years feel the same way and that story also needs to be told.
  • I write about the people and institutions that made Youngstown a good place. I often hear back, “I never knew this about Youngstown. Why didn’t we learn this in school?” I wonder about that as well. I think we need to hear these stories as well. It is one thing to purge corruption. The question is, what do we put in its place? There are some amazing models from William Rayen to P. Ross Berry to Volney Rogers to Mayor Charles Henderson.

Because of work, I don’t live in Youngstown, but as the saying goes, “you can take the boy out of Youngstown, but you can’t take Youngstown out of the boy.” I not only love what Youngstown was, but also what it can become. There are people in education, in health care, in the arts, in the religious community, in the professions who are doing good work. There are people investing in neighborhoods and starting businesses. I loved the library as a kid and love the new library on the Westside and the renovation of the main library. I know there are serious problems as well. But one of the basic principles of building good places is not to focus on the problems or look to some outside “sugar daddy” but to build on the assets inherent in the community. The people of Youngstown, past and present, who have invested in Youngstown are a big part of those assets. Those are the stories I want to tell.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Blog By ChatBot?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

One of the most exciting and disturbing developments that has come to light in the last year is the development of highly sophisticated artificial intelligence “chatbots” capable of producing text often indistinguishable from and sometimes superior to that of human beings, across a variety of subjects. The most prominent of these is ChatGPT, developed by OpenAI. ChatGPT stands for Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer. It was released in prototype version November 30, 2022, resulting in an explosion of discussion.

ChatGPT will respond to a question or command. For esample, I asked ChatGPT “Who was Louis Bromfield?” ChatGPT responded:

Louis Bromfield was an American author and conservationist, born in Ohio in 1896. He was a successful and popular writer in the 1920s and 1930s, producing a number of novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Early Autumn” (1926). He was also known for his conservation work and was a pioneer in sustainable agriculture and land management practices.

In the 1930s, Bromfield established an experimental farm in Ohio, known as Malabar Farm, where he implemented his ideas about conservation and sustainable agriculture. He wrote several books about his experiences on the farm, including “Malabar Farm” (1947) and “Pleasant Valley” (1945), which detailed his efforts to preserve the natural environment and promote sustainable farming practices.

Bromfield’s work had a significant impact on the fields of agriculture and conservation, and his legacy continues to influence modern thinking about sustainable land management and environmental protection.

ChatGPT, generated 2/2/2023 at 7:38pm

I subsequently asked it “Say more about his writing and how its works are evaluated.” It produced a response focusing on his novels but says little about his later works which were generally considered inferior, churned out to fund his farming efforts. So, I asked it about his work at Malabar Farm in Mansfield, Ohio, which I have visited several times. It described his pioneering efforts in sustainable agriculture and described the farm as financially successful. The latter is a more dubious claim. Bromfield was constantly trying to raise money from writing and movie deals to make ends meet.

What is concerning to many is that ChatGPT generates responses that are often factual and crisply written, as in the example above. Can you see how this might be used by students pressed for time, or just not that eager to put in the work to write a term paper? There is a good deal of concerned conversation in academic circles about the implications for everything from admissions essays to term papers to academic articles.

It is also being suggested that ChatGPT and other chatbots could put writers out of business in many fields. It can write advertising blurbs and in some genres, especially those with fast turnaround times, novelist are using ChatGPT to at least help produce content.

One the positive side, a case can be made that ChatGPT is another tool, like Wikipedia or Google, to quickly research a subject. People are already talking about the kinds of tasks that could be done by a chatbot. This could improve productivity, although it may mean that many writing jobs may be on the line. It’s probably time for those who write in some form for a living to ask, “can a chatbot do that?”

At the same time, there are problems with blind reliance on chatbots. At its most basic, OpenAI warns, “May occasionally generate incorrect information.” I indicated some instances in the examples above where the responses were questionable. I also asked ChatGPT for citations supporting its responses and it said it could not do that but recommended several works, none of which, as far as I can ascertain, actually exist. This problem has been widely noted as has a tendency of ChatGPT to “hallucinate,” to create totally fanciful responses. ChatGPT also warns:

  • May occasionally produce harmful instructions or biased content
  • Limited knowledge of world and events after 2021

Teachers are already developing assignments that recognize the limitations of ChatGPT and testing those assignments on ChatGPT. Others are assuming its use and integrating it into the composition process. The use of ChatGBT actually offers an interesting exercise in how one verifies the veracity of information. Since the sources on which ChatGBT draws aren’t transparent, the writer will want to look at other reputable sources, and this helps teach discrimination between reputable and questionable sources.

The biggest problem, of course, is plagiarism. To use a ChatGBT product as verbatim, or substantially, without quotation marks or attribution, representing it as one’s own ideas, is plagiarism. TechCrunch reports that OpenAI has even created a tool to detect AI generated, including ChatGPT generated, text. At present, it is only 26 percent effective. Now the interesting question comes, how does one handle works that do cite ChatGPT? I suspect that syllabi and specific assignments will have to address this, as well as the consequences for Chatbot plagiarism.

So, what about blogs by chatbot? I tried this experiment. I asked ChatGPT to review Alex Haley’s Roots. I’ve never written a review of this book. It produced the following:

“Roots: The Saga of an American Family” by Alex Haley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and television miniseries that was first published in 1976. It is a historical novel that traces the journey of an African man named Kunta Kinte and seven generations of his descendants, from his capture and enslavement in Africa, to his life in America and the eventual liberation of his descendants. The book was based on Haley’s own genealogical research and oral history from his family, and it was groundbreaking in its depiction of the African American experience. It sparked a renewed interest in genealogy and African American history, and has been widely praised for its impact on American culture and society.

ChatGPT, generated 2/2/2023 at 7:00 pm

That’s a nice, succinct summary, but not nearly long enough for my blog reviews. So I tried this “Review in the style of bobonbooks.com.” ChatGPT produced this:

“Roots: The Saga of an American Family” by Alex Haley is a magnificent piece of literature that tells the story of one African American family’s journey from slavery to freedom. This book is a powerful and emotional read that provides a vivid representation of the horrors of slavery, as well as the resilience of the human spirit.

The narrative follows the life of Kunta Kinte, an African man who is captured and sold into slavery, and traces the experiences of his descendants over several generations. The character development is excellent, with each character being unique and memorable in their own way. Haley’s writing is both descriptive and evocative, painting a vivid picture of the time period and bringing the story to life.

One of the most significant aspects of “Roots” is its depiction of slavery, which is graphic, honest, and heart-wrenching. The book serves as a reminder of the atrocities committed against Africans and African Americans, and it’s a testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.

In conclusion, “Roots” is a landmark work of African American literature that should be read by all. Its impact on American culture and society cannot be overstated, and it remains an important and relevant book to this day. Highly recommended!

ChatGPT, generated 2/2/2023 at 7:02 pm

Hmm. That does sound a bit more like what I do–still shorter and less detailed than what I usually write. I rarely use words like “emotional read” or “Highly recommended.” I do like words like “resilience” and “evocative.” It does follow the form of many of my reviews, although it feels more “generic” than what I might write. And I found no typos, which can rarely be said of me. It would be interesting to know what others think.

But I won’t be turning to ChatGPT to write my reviews or other blog posts. Here’s why:

  • Fundamentally, I like crafting my own reviews. I write them to remember what I read.
  • ChatGPT cannot know by itself how I actually engaged with a book–what I thought, how I reacted–it can only summarize the content and mimic my style. There is a serendipitous element to all this–I often discover what I think as I write.
  • For better or worse, my writing cannot help but reflect my life experiences and my deepest values, neither of which are static.
  • Part of the implicit contract with both publisher and public is honesty. Will ChatGPT say that a book just doesn’t cut it?
  • No one needs to visit Bob on Books to know what ChatGBT thinks of a book (and I would have to be honest in attribution).

Chatbots are here to stay. We’ve been using Seri and Alexa for years. We engage them when we seek online support. And the new AI of ChatGBT is becoming increasingly successful at simulating our human neural networks while accessing vast sources of information and articulating its responses in reasonably interesting text. And those mistakes? AI is iterative, which means it learns and corrects those mistakes. I asked ChatGBT about something I’m very familiar with, the history of Youngstown. It was accurate, except it said that John Young was from Pennsylvania, when in fact, he was from Whitestown, New York. I corrected this and then asked where John Young was from and it gave the correct answer. Part of the reason for the free release of this powerful tool was to learn and refine it through user interactions like the ones I’ve recorded here.

But I won’t be using it to write my blog. I’ll keep reading the books, keep writing about things that interest me, and keep researching, checking sources against sources when I can. That doesn’t guarantee that I won’t make mistakes, but they’ll be mine, and part of my own iterative learning process, part of my lifelong formation. I will not delegate that to a chatbot.

Review: The Inconvenient Gospel

The Inconvenient Gospel (Plough Spiritual Guides), Clarence Jordan, edited by Frederick L. Downing, Introduction by Starlette Thomas. Walden, NY: Plough Books, 2022.

Summary: A collection of the talks and writings of Clarence Jordan, rooted in the teaching of Jesus, drawing out the radical implications this has for war, wealth disparity, civil rights, and true community.

I’ve known of Clarence Jordan for many years but it wasn’t until this collection of his writings crossed my path that I read him. I knew he was a Baptist preacher in the south, that he wrote his own paraphrase of the gospels, The Cotton Patch Gospels, and that he helped form an integrated farming community, Koinonia Farms, in the face of great opposition. One can learn all this and more in Frederick Downing’s fine introduction to this collection.

What I learned in reading this collection was that here was a man who really was formed more by his reading of the gospels than the culture and I think this comes through in every piece in this collection. He makes this radical claim in the first piece, “Impractical Christianity”: “For Christianity is not a system you work–it is a Person who works you. You don’t get it; he gets you.” In “The Meaning of Christian Fellowship,” he elaborates the meaning of koinonia: common ownership, distribution according to need, and the complete equality and freedom of every believer. In “What is the Word of God,” he emphasizes the priority of the living Word and that scripture must never be a prison for the living Word but rather a witness to him. He forcefully challenges White Supremacy in “White Southern Christians and Race” by contending 1) there is no scientific basis for inferiority or superiority of any race over the other, 2) there is no biblical evidence that God has favorite children, and 3) differences are differences, not signs of superiority or inferiority.

“No Promised Land without the Wilderness” sets out the challenge every true leader of God’s people will face–criticism when things are harder or don’t go the way people expected. In his talk at Goshen College on the Ten Commandments, he stresses the idea that the laws were given out of love–that we not so much break laws but break ourselves upon them. He emphasizes, in “Jesus, Leader of the Poor,” the kind of king Jesus was in sitting on a “mule whereon no man had ever sat,” humorously remarking on his own attempts to sit on such a mule, concluding that he was still “a mule whereon no man had ever sat”! Yet Jesus sits on this lowly yet recalcitrant animal. In “Love Your Enemies,” he recounts a confrontation with the insults of a segregationist with whom he could have easily mopped the floor. Asked why he didn’t, he said that he was trying to obey the command to love his enemies–or at least do him no harm, leading to a conversation on what it means to be a Christian.

“Jesus and Possessions” talks about the distorting power of possessions over us. “Metamorphosis” speaks of the transforming power of the gospel, one that takes two people who would have been at each other’s throats, Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot and turns them into brothers. In “The Man from Gadara,” he explores how this demoniac could have come to lose his own self to a legion of demons. He raises questions about societal hypocrisy–why pigs in a land where no one is supposed to eat pigs?–and raises questions about teaching children not to kill and then sending them to war, and what that does to one, anticipating the traumas of PTSD we see with so many war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Things Needed for our Peace” was a talk given four weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and draws on Jesus’ words approaching Jerusalem, speaking to the needs for racial humility, for an understanding of violence, and that Christian faithfulness may lead, not to success, but the cross, and, if we survive, to a new attitude of servanthood and identification with the hurts of others.

The last in this collection, “The Humanity of God,” returns to the person of Jesus, the concern of Jordan throughout his ministry. He speaks of the attempts of Mary and his earthly family to control him and Mary’s relinquishment of Jesus at the cross, allowing him fully, and finally, to be about his Father’s business. From start to finish, the pieces in this collection face us with the uniqueness of Christ as fully God and human, his authority, and flowing from that his radical call for those who would follow.

This book is part of the Plough Spiritual Guides series. This, as well as the others acquaint us with the best of spiritual reading, which is always to take us into the heart of God to see both great love and unequaled authority. They remind us that there are really only two ways to live and that we can’t have it both ways and that the only good way is the way of the good news, as strange from a worldly view, as it seems. Jordan reminds us that it is both strange and good.

____________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

The Month in Reviews: January 2023

Believe it or not, we are already a month into the new year. I hope it has been a good month reading-wise for you, toward whatever, if any, reading goals you have this year. I always want to read books by authors from my own state of Ohio. I had the chance to read two, one of which ended up being my book of the month. The other is a massive best seller, The Deluge, that is a thought-provoking (and scary!) glimpse at the future that may be awaiting us in a warming world. As always, there was good theology including one on the appearances of God, another on Christ as our great high priest, a couple books on theology of work and vocation, a book on five views of the New Testament canon, and a study on hardness of heart from a scholar who I knew from back in the Jesus movement days, Charles “Chuck” Puskas. We even grew up on the same side of town. The biography of Henry Ward Beecher was fascinating–the forerunner of all our megachurch preachers in many ways. I read the sequel to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (and have just picked up her latest). Of course it wouldn’t be a month without a Ngaio Marsh–there are TWO here! I met two of my Reading Challenge goals in reading a collection of Wendell Berry poetry and the memoir of Paul Kalanithi, a rising medical neurosurgical resident who receives the worst diagnosis anyone can receive. Actually, reading a classic Oliver Sacks book also fulfilled a goal of reading an author I like. All told, it was a great month of reading with nineteen reviews to show for it. Here they are.

TheophanyVern S. Poythress. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2022 (Originally published by Crossway in 2018). A study of the visible appearances of God to his people in scripture, what they reveal about God, and how they anticipate God’s ultimate appearing in the person of his Son, God incarnate. Review

Crumpled Paper: A Novel About Art and TeaMichael S. Moore. Sanford, NC: Word-Brokers, LLC, 2022. The tale of the unfolding of an artistic vision, and a friend who, acting as agent, just wants his artist friend to stay solvent. Review

The Intentional YearHolly Packiam and Glenn Packiam. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2022. An invitation to stop, assess, and plan around five clusters of practices that enable us to live purposeful lives. Review

Face to Face with God (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology), T. Desmond Alexander. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. An exploration of the biblical theme of priesthood and mediation and how Christ fulfills these par excellence. Review

Olive, AgainElizabeth Strout. New York: Random House, 2020. The sequel to Olive Kitteridge, an older Olive on her second marriage after Henry died, the indignities and transitions of aging, coming to terms with relationships with children and others, and the unique ways Olive shows up, helpfully, when you’d least expect it. Review

Learning HumilityRichard J. Foster. Downers Grove: IVP/Formatio, 2022. A journal of a year-long journey of learning humility including notes from readings, reflections, prayers, organized around the Lakota calendar. Review

The Most Famous Man in AmericaDebby Applegate. New York: Three Leaves Press, 2007. The Pulitzer prize-winning biography of the most famous preacher in nineteenth century America, and the scandals around his sexual life. Review

God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of LifeGene Edward Veith, Jr. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002. A theology of vocation, rooted in the thought of Martin Luther, and covering God’s call over all of our lives. Review

Spinsters in Jeopardy (Inspector Alleyn #17), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2014 (first published in 1953). Alleyn takes his family along to visit a distant cousin in southern France while collaborating with the French in investigating a drug ring. Review

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a HatOliver Sacks. New York: Touchstone, 2006 (originally published in 1985). Brief case histories of twenty-four patients with unusual neurological conditions. Review

Five Views on the New Testament Canonedited by Stanley E. Porter and Benjamin P. Laird. Contributors: Darian P. Lockett, David Nienhuis, Jason David BeDuhn, Ian Boxall, George L. Parsenios. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2022. Statements from five different theological perspectives on the history, theology, and hermeneutic related to the formation of the New Testament canon, with responses from each to the others. Review

Necessary ChristianityClaude R. Alexander, Jr. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022. In a culture of options, focuses on the necessities of the Christian life by looking at the “must” statements in the gospel associated with Jesus. Review

This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems 1979-2012Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2013. A compilation of several volumes of Berry’s sabbath poems. Review

Hardness of Heart in Biblical LiteratureCharles B. Puskas. Eugene, Cascade Books, 2022. A study of the words and texts in which they are used referring to hardness of heart holding in tension both the refusal to heed God and the purpose of God in the hardening of hearts. Review

Garden City: Work, Rest, and the Art of Being HumanJohn Mark Comer. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015. An argument that our work is an important aspect of what it means for us to be human, setting our work in the context of the arc of God’s work taking humanity from the garden to the new garden city in the new creation. Review

When Breath Becomes AirPaul Kalanithi. New York: Random House, 2016. The memoir of Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgery resident who becomes a patient when receiving a diagnosis of state IV metastatic lung cancer, the ways he and his wife respond at various stages, the care he receives, and his reflections on his illness and impending death. Review

The DelugeStephen Markley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023. A novel imagining the interaction of accelerating impacts of climate change and the unraveling of societies. Review

Cultivating MentorsTodd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers, eds., foreword by Mark R. Schwehn. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. A collection of articles on the theological foundations, goals, and practices of mentoring in Christian higher education with a particular focus on generational dynamics. Review

The Nursing Home MurderNgaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn #3). New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2011 (originally published in 1935). The Home Secretary collapses of acute appendicitis during a speech on a key bill against radicals and is taken to a private hospital of an old doctor friend for emergency surgery, dying under suspicious circumstances soon after the operation.

Best Book of the Month. I’m so glad Michael S. Moore, an Ohio author, reached out to me regarding his book, Crumpled Paper. It’s a delightful tale of drinking tea, enjoying mouthwatering food in quaint cafes, and a community of artists, finely written in plot development, characters and the overall ethos of the book. I commented that this might be my “sleeper” of the year.

Best Quote of the Month: I read This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems 1979-2012. I loved this one, 2005, I:

I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.

I have no love
except it come from Thee.

Help me, please, to carry
this candle against the wind.

I could make this may daily prayer for the rest of my days–just so fitly expressed.

What I’m Reading. Sometimes, reading the Bible in a new translation makes it come alive in special ways. This has been especially true for me as I’ve been reading through the First Nations Version, an Indigenous Peoples translation of the New Testament. I just finished Clarence Jordan’s An Inconvenient Gospel, a collection of shorter writings from this Baptist preacher who started Koinonia Farm and was active in civil rights advocacy as well as translating The Cotton Patch Gospel. I love a good science book and I have been reveling in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Song of the Cell. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and the cell biology of all living things is truly wondrous as one learns of it. The Back Side of the Cross explores atonement theologies through the eyes of the abused, exploring not only how Christ died for sinners but also the sinned against, who are on “the back side” of the cross. I’ve just begun Pope Benedict XVI’s The Garden of God, a theology of the environment. I’m interested to see how this anticipates Laudato Si. Finally, I’m just getting into a collection of Lenten readings called A Just Passion, from a number of InterVarsity Press authors.

I also recently posted my Winter 2023 Christian Book Preview. There are some great new books out there (and a few that have arrived since!). Needless to say, there is no shortage of good things to read. And if my reviews suggest a few things worth pursuing, then that is a bonus–for you and for me!

The Month in Reviews is my monthly review summary going back to 2014! It’s a great way to browse what I’ve reviewed. The search box on this blog also works well if you are looking for a review of a particular book.

Review: The Nursing Home Murder

The Nursing Home Murder, Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn #3). New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2011 (originally published in 1935).

Summary: The Home Secretary collapses of acute appendicitis during a speech on a key bill against radicals and is taken to a private hospital of an old doctor friend for emergency surgery, dying under suspicious circumstances soon after the operation.

Spoiler notice: The review includes a plot summary, without giving away the conclusion.

The Home Secretary, O’Callaghan, has put the final touches on a bill against anarchists and the Prime Minister’s cabinet is ready to press it forward. It will be dangerous for O’Callaghan, who will lead the effort. People have been assassinated for less. But O’Callaghan is fighting enemies on other fronts. He is suffering from the symptoms of appendicitis but is trying to gut it out until passage of the bill. Then there is the woman he’d had a sexual liaison with. Both were approaching it with a progressive attitude, except the woman, Jane Harden, cannot. She has fallen in love and written both touchingly and threateningly in several letters. Then a doctor friend, Sir John Phillips, who runs a private hospital nearby (the “nursing home” of the title) visits, not knowing O’Callaghan is ailing, and confronts him about the affair with Jane Harden, who is his theater nurse, and with whom he is in love. Jane will not consider him, having “given herself” to O’Callaghan. The meeting concludes unsatisfactorily, Phillips warning him, “You do well to keep clear of me” and threatening if he has the opportunity to “put him out of the way.”

His hypochondriac sister Ruth tries to help, pressing on him various patent medicines from her pharmacist friend as he tries to ignore the pain and get the bill through. Lady Callaghan remains more distant, not unsympathetic but letting him do what he must. But when he gets up to make a major speech on the bill, he collapses and under Lady O’Callaghan’s direction, unaware of the recent confrontation, is taken to Dr. Phillips hospital. He diagnoses a burst appendix, requiring immediate surgery. He wants to get another surgeon but Lady O’Callaghan insists he operate.

Dr. Philips is assisted by Dr. Thoms, an eccentric anesthetist Roberts, Sister Marigold, the head nurse, Nurse Banks a gruff nurse active in communist agitation and outspoken in her antipathy for O’Callaghan, and Nurse Harden. Various injections, including hyoscine, used for abdominal pain, are given. Phillips personally prepares the hyoscine injection and administers it. The operation comes off but O’Callaghan’s pulse is weak, his condition worsens and he dies shortly after.

It was thought this was due to the neglect of the appendicitis but Lady O’Callaghan suspects foul play, having come into possession of the letters from Jane Harden and learned from O’Callaghan’s personal secretary, Jameson, that Phillips had spoken threateningly to O’Callaghan. She speaks to Alleyn, who had been handling security on a discrete basis for the Home Secretary, and he is persuaded there is credible cause for an autopsy and inquest. The coroner finds he’d received on overdose of the hyoscine, enough to easily kill him.

Beyond the obvious suspect, Dr. Phillips, Alleyn must consider a host of possibilities. Jane Harden certainly had motive. Nurse Banks hated what O’Callaghan stood for and was active in the communist party. Was she part of a plot to kill him? Roberts was also at the party meeting. Dr. Thoms happened to talk about the lethal dose of hyoscine. Was Ruth an unwitting accomplice in his death? What was in the patent medicines mixed by the pharmacist, who also happened to be part of the local communist party?

In addition to the intrepid Fox, Alleyn draws upon the help of his newspaper friend Bathgate and his girlfriend Angela, who help with a bit of undercover work at a party meeting. None of this seems to bring him closer to the killer, although Alleyn has growing suspicions, until a fluke event exposes the killer.

This is classic Marsh–a host of suspects, an effort to follow movements to see who really had motive, means, and opportunity, with a lot of cogitating with Fox and Bathgate. It can seem a bit formulaic at times, although I’ve always liked the books with Bathgate. But formulas can be like recipes, it’s the little “extras” that keep the dish from being ho-hum. The batty siater, Ruth, the crusty communist, Nurse Banks, the eccentric Roberts with his crazy theories, and the noble Roberts who we so want not to be guilty and to find love with Nurse Harden, that makes it all interesting.

Review: Cultivating Mentors

Cultivating Mentors, Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers, eds., foreword by Mark R. Schwehn. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A collection of articles on the theological foundations, goals, and practices of mentoring in Christian higher education with a particular focus on generational dynamics.

Higher education institutions interested in both academic excellence and faculty and staff retention are paying increased attention to mentoring, particularly of junior faculty and staff. This is especially true of the Christian college context out of which the contributors of this volume write but many of their observations and recommended practices have applicability in the secular academy as well.

The collection opens with a foreword by Mark R. Schwehn, one of the most thoughtful commentators on academic life. He observes that in the present moment the differences between mentors and mentees offers the opportunities for mutual learning around technology and various forms of diversity. In the present era, concerns about mentoring in the context of diversity and inclusion are vital in welcoming increasingly diverse faculties .

The editors then offer an introductory essay laying out the emphases of this collection: attention to characteristics of the rising generation as they relate to mentoring, what the Christian tradition offers in terms of mentoring and the academic vocation, and the ideas and practices that follow for mentoring in scholarly contexts.

David Kinnaman, utilizing Barna research, stresses mentoring as a crucial formation process, addressing mentoring solutions for mental health, for trauma, mentoring toward vocational discipleship, and relational mentoring.

Tim Clydesdale writes on leading integrated lives and the role mentoring can play in navigating personal and professional commitments. He focuses on vocation and stresses reflection, practice, and community and the role these play in the “summoning” of vocation.

Margaret Diddams observes that in mentoring, the focus on the individual needs to be complemented with focus on the organization of which they are part and how they might flourish within that context. She examines three models of mentoring in the organizational context and their strengths and weaknesses: the institutional, the interactionist, and the inclusion models, concluding that an approach that draws on all of these may be best.

Edgardo Colón-Emeric focuses on the increasingly diverse academy and how we mentor toward a new we. He highlights the pilgrimage of pain and hope that is the mestizaje experience in transcultural engagement.

Rebecca C. Hong considers the transition that we are in the midst of from boomers to zoomers with a focus on the increasing human-centeredness of work, including the end of the office, home as work place, and the challenges of burnout, languishing, and the great resignation that have been consequences of the pandemic. She then returns to a focus on human-centered work design that values persons, nurturing flexibility, creativity, and innovation.

Tim Elmore explores generational differences and the intentional practices involved in mentoring with shortened attention spans, the dangers of being isolated behind screens, the prevalence of mental health issues, the changing landscape of technology, and the consumer experience. He argues for the cultivation of resourcefulness and resilience with mentees and suggests different forms of mentoring and crucial experiences that foster these qualities.

Beck A. Taylor discusses lifecycle mentoring across one’s academic career reflecting on his own journey from his undergraduate preparation, graduate school mentorship, his early academic career, his move into administration, and his path to university presidency. Beyond personal character, he believes rising leaders are marked by mission orientation, service to others, professional intentionality, and openness to mentorship.

Stacy A. Hammons concludes with a summary of key threads and important practices. She summarizes key challenges and five propositions addressing a theology of formation and calling, organizational change for effective mentoring, the recognition of the needs of Millenials and Gen Zers entering the academy, the needs of professionals transitioning to academic roles, and seriously addressing issues of diversity.

I appreciate the comprehensive and culturally relevant mix of articles in this collection addressing the theology of mentoring around vocation and formation, the institutional setting, the academic lifecycle, the particular characteristics and needs of those entering academic professions, and the vital issue of diversity. I think something more on the qualities of the effective mentor, and perhaps a bit more on what mentees should expect to invest in a good mentoring relationship would be helpful. Beck Taylor’s essay discusses this to some degree, but my own sense is the effective relationships occur when both come as active learners and listeners. I also think that material on finding mentors when one’s institution has not structured such opportunities could be valuable. However, this is an excellent, far-reaching discussion that points people to other writing while offering a number of practical recommendations on both the personal and institutional level.

____________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Street and Trolley Cars

Mahoning & Shenango Railway and Light car #314 in Youngstown, Public Domain. They are boarding downtown passengers headed to Idora Park.

Do you know that there was a time when Youngstown had streetcars, and later on trolley cars, much like buses, running on tires rather than rails, but powered from overhead wires? Actually, the last trolleys were retired in 1959, within my lifetime. I do not have a memory of these, but I can’t help but believe I saw them.

The earliest streetcars in Youngstown were horse-drawn, the first dating to 1875 traveling along rails laid between Jefferson Street in Brier Hill and E. Federal Street in downtown Youngstown. It was operated by the Youngstown Street Railroad Company. Fares were less than 6 cents a ride. Later, the same company inaugurated the first electric streetcars in 1891 with routes from Brier Hill to Haselton, out Elm Street to Broadway, and on Mahoning Avenue to Belle Vista.

Several other companies formed in the 1890’s extending lines to other parts of Youngstown and surrounding areas. The Mahoning Valley Railway Company extended lines through East Youngstown and Struthers in 1899, and Lowellville in 1900. The Youngstown & Southern Railway Company ran a route from downtown to Columbiana and Leetonia. The South Side was rapidly growing and The Youngstown Park & Falls Street Railway was franchised to provide service from downtown to Terminal Park (which became Idora Park), beginning service May 30, 1899. It rapidly became the most traveled route in the area.

In 1906, all these companies except Youngstown & Southern merged to form the Mahoning & Shenango Railway & Light Company. In 1920, it became the Penn-Ohio Electric System. In 1921, there were 59 miles of streetcar lines in Youngstown and going between Youngstown and Girard, Niles and Warren (Ohio), and New Castle and Sharon and there were connections to interurban railroads to Cleveland and west to Chicago and other major cities. This map reflects the routes at that time:

Youngstown Streetcar and Interurban Map. The Youngstown & Southern route is in brown.

The next year, 1922, marked the introduction of the trolley car by the Youngstown Municipal Railway Co. They were enclosed rather than open and had leather seats rather than wooden benches and ran on tires rather than rails, still powered by overhead electric lines. By 1923 the Williamson street car line was terminated, and more and more lines were abandoned during the Depression. By 1940, trolleys had replaced the last streetcar. In 1942, the old tracks were torn up and sold for scrap. But this was also the zenith of the growth of trolley car lines. Expansion slowed during the war and post-war years. Between 1957 and 1959 buses replaced trolleys and the last trolley run was on June 10, 1959. Reflecting the change, the company changed its name to the Youngstown Transit Company in 1957 until it became the publicly owned Western Reserve Transit Authority in 1971.

If you want to take a walk down memory lane or see what the old trolleys were like, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society has uploaded a great video to YouTube that also features 1950’s downtown Youngstown. Take a few minutes and enjoy!

One wonders if we’ll see a new version of electric trolleys or light rail used once more in public transportation as we shift from carbon-based fuels. The big thing that has changed is the rise of the car, and electric-powered cars are growing in popularity. The one thing that is clear is that there was once a robust interurban transportation network in the Mahoning Valley and in most of our nation’s towns and cities. I’m kind of sorry I more or less missed it.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: The Deluge

The Deluge, Stephen Markley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023.

Summary: A novel imagining the interaction of accelerating impacts of climate change and the unraveling of societies.

I should say at the outset that there are a number of reasons not to read this book:

  • It’s long–880 pages
  • It’s scary, because it reads like our news feeds on steroids–both in accounts of extreme weather and other climate change impacts and societal unraveling.
  • It involves movement back and forth in narrating the lives and actions of a disparate set of characters, all a part of a growing crisis intermixed with collages of news articles, fictional op-ed columns, and magazine articles. It’s not always easy to keep track of it all.
  • It’s raw with graphic descriptions of violence, of various iterations of sex, and adult language.

Yet, despite all this, I could not put it down and I can’t stop thinking about it and talking about it. The lead character in this book is really our planet–its ice sheets, its oceans, its atmosphere, and its weather. Markley portrays in vivid detail the extreme weather events we already are seeing–in even greater extremes. Unprecedented snow storms. An atmospheric river flooding California (certainly written before the recent actual weather events). Monstrous hurricanes with 250 mph winds. Fires that destroy Los Angeles. Sea levels inundating coastal cities. Midwest flooding. Triple digit heat domes a routine summer event. Melting permafrost and ocean floors releasing methane, leading to cascading increases in global warming.

The novel moves between the stories of a collection of characters. A passionate environmentalist, Kate Morris, founds a creative movement, Fierce Blue Fire, starting both local community development groups and a national lobbying effort to pass environmental legislation, ultimately gutted by carbon interests. Her story is told mostly through the eyes of Matt, her partner in an “open” relationship–the terms dictated by Kate. Tony Pietrus, is a scientist who discovers and models what happens when underwater methane is released through oceanic warming. Then there is the Pastor, a has-been actor who undergoes a conversion and becomes a religious alt-right charismatic figure who eventually runs for president as a tool of the carbon lobby. Jackie is a savvy ad exec, who crafts the media strategy that guts the climate legislation Kate had fought so hard for who goes on to join her partner, Fred, in building a global investment fund leveraging the changing energy and social situation to make lots of money for investors at the expense of the world’s poor–until she regains a conscience. There is a group of climate radicals, 6Degrees, committed to using violent means to stop big coal and corporate America that through compartmented protocols and infiltration of computer networks, evades detection while staging a series of increasingly violent bombings. Keeper, an ex-addict trying to put his life back together with the help of an immigrant pastor in a small town community and gets swept up in 6 Degrees activity. And there is Ashir, who writes memoranda to a congressperson that are really personal narratives. He is a brilliant analyst and mathematician whose predictive algorithm ends up being exploited by everything from sports betting to the investment fund Jackie and her partner, Fred, manage.

All of these characters’ stories unfold against the backdrop of an unraveling country. States seceding, An irreconcilably divided political environment controlled by powerful lobbies. A tanking economy. Food and power shortages. Increasingly violent and aggressive militias. And a similarly unraveling international situation. A series of “martyrdoms” lead to what seems an awakening and embrace of the actions needed to stabilize an ever-warming world, but one requiring generations of brave effort to do so.

While one might find faults with the book, its length, structure, and character development, I thought it all worked in the end. I found myself actually caring about many of the people. As I said, I couldn’t put it down. And it made me ask the question–could all this really happen? I find myself very troubled by the fact that I have no good argument to say, “it can’t happen here?” A society that threatens public health and political officials over wearing a piddly little face mask during a highly infectious pandemic strikes me as ill-prepared or disposed to enact radical and long term societal-wide changes to reduce global warming. Despite all we know and all the talk about energy-saving and renewables our U.S. carbon emissions went UP 1.3 percent in the last year.

Can fiction speak to what all our white papers and models have not? What Markley does is take a holistic look at what happens to a society when increasingly extreme weather disrupts the fabric of our lives on an increasingly pervasive scale. The picture isn’t pretty. He bids us to look into the abyss. While some act with nobility and courage, for many others, the worst nature dishes out brings out the worst in humans. He raises profound questions about whether our democratic republic can survive these stresses. There are indications that he hangs on to hope even while portraying how challenging the world will be for our children and grand-children. And perhaps that is where we need to be–both clear-eyed, and passionately hopeful. Lord have mercy!

____________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi. New York: Random House, 2016.

Summary: The memoir of Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgery resident who becomes a patient when receiving a diagnosis of state IV metastatic lung cancer, the ways he and his wife respond at various stages, the care he receives, and his reflections on his illness and impending death.

You are a talented neurosurgery chief resident with a focus on research with brilliant job prospects ahead. It’s been a long journey from Kingman, Arizona, that began with avoiding embracing his father’s profession of medicine. Studies in both English literature and biology confront you with varying answers about the meaningful life, and avenues to pursue such a life. In the end, you come back, not only to medicine but neurosurgery, as you recognize how inextricably human consciousness, one’s “soul” is connected to the structures and functions of the brain. You subject yourself to the rigors of long days, developing precision in the surgical skills critical to his sense of calling. You are close to completion…and then. There is the persistent cough. The fatigue. The weight loss. The back pain growing more acute. Your mind goes to cancer but earlier X-rays didn’t reveal anything. Maybe it’s just the strain of the work. Until a visit to friends reveals how much you are in pain and fatigue. And you voice your fears.

The prologue of the book opens with Paul Kalanithi and his wife Lucy, also a resident, looking at CT scans of tumors in lungs, spine, and liver. From a hospital bed. As a patient. Preparing to meet his doctor. The narrative breaks off here to recap the journey that brought Paul to this residency, the advance of his skills, his hopes, and the strains on his marriage, much outlined “above. He recounts learning to treat his patients as people. One way he articulates this is when he says, “Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end.”

Now as patient, his own doctor, Emma Howard, asks him the same questions. It is not only the character of his cancer, but his own character, that will shape his course of treatment, and, just as no two cancers are alike, so there are no two people who can answer these questions in quite the same way. Does he want to try to return to work? Or step away? What does he value. He could live six months, two years, or even ten years. His physician refuses to say, focusing on next steps and what Paul values. He wrestles with how one makes decisions about such things. At first he thought this was the end of it all. And then a drug, Tarceva, shrank his tumors and he regained strength–enough to return to surgery and finish his residency. Do he and Lucy have a child using the sperm they had banked before he began treatment?

Kalanithi takes us through the journey so many cancer patients with metastatic cancer go through. The promising results from a drug…until it stops working. The rigors of chemo, temporarily stopping tumor growth, but nearly killing. The decisions of how long to go on, and how to spend the time that remains. A significant moment is when he relinquishes being the consulting physician and relinquishes his care to Dr. Howard. Paul chooses to write this memoir, and spend time with Lucy and his baby daughter and family…until the cancer takes him. His last words? “I’m ready.”

All but the epilogue was written by Paul. He had helped patients face death. Now he had to figure out how to do that himself–to face death with integrity. He turned to the literature he loved, references to which run through the work. This is such a good and important book. One not to wait to read until facing a diagnosis like Paul’s. We already know we will die–even if we are in denial. What was important was for him to answer the questions of meaning and value that would enable him to make most of the time remaining–whatever the length of that time. And so it is for all of us.